11 September 2006

Broadband through gas pipes

Public utilities are industries that have historically been characterized by being capital intensive, slow growth, dependable revenue companies. During the "dot-com" boom of the 1990s, utility companies sought to break out of that mold by adapting their infrastructure to support new communications services. Enron was the "poster child" for that strategy. During their heyday, they acheived remarkable growth for a utility (in part due to fraud as it it turned out, though there was some significant innovation that happened there as well, especially in bandwidth trading).

Some of the biggest assets that a utility has are its rights-of-way and its installed infrastructure. So, utilities have been seeking ways of "monetizing" this asset. Sometimes this has meant allowing communications companies to install fiber in their conduits. In another case, electric utilities have developed power line communications (PLC) systems to bring communications services to businesses and residences over the electric power system (here is the Wikipedia post -- I haven't checked it yet for correctness).

What brings all of this to mind is this article in today's USA Today. Apparently some gas companies are interested in a system that uses Ultra Wideband (UWB) technology in gas lines to support communications over their infrastructure.

Why not treat gas lines as waveguides and use RF? Do you think this could be a viable "third pipe"? Why is such a third pipe desirable anyway? From a public policy standpoint, is it a good thing (or not) to have competition among a variety of "third pipe" technologies? Why or why not?

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